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Then Secretary of State Colin Powell making the case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq to the United Nations in February of 2003. (File)

Still Scared Stupid in the Age of Terrorism

John Atcheson

Now c’mon Wall Street don’t move slow, why man, this is war-a-go. There’s plenty of good money to be made, supplyin’ the Army the tools of it’s trade … —Country Joe and the Fish, "I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag"

OK, it must be said:  As a threat, terrorism is a buck private posing as a four star general.  It’s a kid’s balloon being passed off as a blimp. It’s a puddle posing as a port.  It is to threats, what a single cold sore is to a cholera pandemic.

Let’s look at the numbers. 

Even including 911, terrorism has caused an average of less than 150 deaths a year in the last fifteen years.  Exclude 911, which we now know could have been prevented and happened only because Bush and his administration repeatedly ignored urgent warnings from the CIA, and terrorism caused an average of less than 2 US deaths a year.  That’s worth repeating: less than 2 deaths a year.

How does this stack up against other causes of mortality in the US?  Well, let’s do the numbers:

·      More than 25,000 times as many die from car-related incidents each year;
·      About 25,000 times as many die from gun-related tragedies;
·      Ten times as many die from lightning strikes … etc etc.

To put the threat of terrorism in perspective, even with the deaths from 911, each year it kills about as many people as falling furniture, and a little fewer than are killed by bee stings. 

So, in the face of this Lilliputian threat, what has been our response?  Why, spend about 4.4 trillion dollars, shred the Bill of Rights we’re supposedly fighting to defend, and develop a massive eavesdropping capacity that is blatantly illegal.

War-a-go-go indeed!

Of course, we should do our best to deal with terrorism.  But the fact of the matter is, it shouldn’t cost even a 100th of what we’re spending, and it sure as hell doesn’t warrant suspending civil liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Spending more to defend against a rag-tag army of indigents armed with scrounged equipment and borrowed munitions than we did to defend against a Soviet Union armed with 8,500 nuclear warheads and 5 million trained troops is a form of mass insanity. 

Besides, the data shows that conventional intelligence and conventional law enforcement have been our most successful anti-terrorist tactics, and both are relatively inexpensive.

So we are left with the question of why – in the face of what can be characterized at most as a moderate threat – we are chucking out cherished freedoms like yesterday’s trash and spending trillions of dollars.  

It’s as if we decided that the danger of falling furniture somehow warranted a national response that limited our freedoms and emptied our treasury.

The answer, of course, is that government, the media, and a burgeoning anti-terrorism industry have a vested interest in trumping up terrorism.

Let’s start with the media.  Fear sells papers, puts asses in front of the TV, and keeps the radio on -- and that means advertisements, money and influence.

The motive of Terrorism Inc. is pretty clear:  with $4.4 trillion floating around, think tanks, academics, security firms, munitions manufacturers, spyware, and security hardware manufacturers all profit from inflating the terrorist threat.

But it all starts with government.  As H. L. Menken said, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”  

A frightened public is a malleable public, and a distracted one.  Real issues like economic justice, income disparity, equal opportunity, and the growing threat of monopolies can get swept under the bloated shadow of terrorism.  So can the fact that our elections have degenerated into a bidding war, where votes and integrity are sold to the highest bidder, and the popular will is routinely ignored.  The Military Industrial Complex can maintain its stranglehold on our economy and society. 

And of course, as long as we’re all looking at Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan etc. the two big honking truths -- that the US is not a democracy, but an oligarchy, and capitalism, as currently practiced, is unsustainable – can be hidden behind the fog of fear.    

Terrorism is typically defined as the use of tactics designed to instill terror, in order to institute political policies that could not be achieved by conventional means.

Makes one wonder who the real terrorists are.

Indeed, we know this strategy of interceding in civil and sectarian strife and fighting wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan (and now Syria if the neocons have their way) has actually created more terrorists. The latest incarnation, ISIS, is, as David Stockman said, the mother of all blowbacks – a problem created by our own policies.  After all, ISIS includes US trained insurgents using US equipment, motivated by US occupations.

And now Terrorism Inc, led by the neocons – you know, the folks who got everything wrong before and after 911 -- are telling us ISIS is an “existential” threat to our society.

Why? No one seems to be able to answer that.  ISIS doesn’t have a single airplane or naval ship, and their “army” is nearly 7,000 miles away. And while we know that low cost tactics such as conventional intelligence and conventional law enforcement have brought down the number of terrorist incidents in the US dramatically we seem once again on the verge of massive military response overseas against a trumped up enemy, incredibly, using the same policies that created the enemy we’re fighting. 

The only reason this insane response hasn’t been laughed off the national stage is that we’ve been scared stupid by Terrorism, Inc.

And their motive?

Well, Country Joe and H. L. Menken probably had it about right. There’s plenty of good money to be made … and scared people are more than willing to pay.

Yeah, sometimes you have to wonder who the real terrorists are.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson. John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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